The Guggenheim Museum is crowded after five on a Saturday, when the price of admission is “pay what you wish.” Even in below-freezing weather this weekend, the ticket line snaked around the corner. People came in groups, couples, and alone. As happens in large crowds, at times the noise level rose spontaneously, as though something or someone were demanding attention, but immediately subsided. At any given time, there were people milling around in the lobby, looking at the door as though waiting for someone and up at the galleries as though planning something. Some of them were.
A bit after six, a group went up to one of the galleries. They were people of different ages, from their late teens to their sixties. They could have been New Yorkers or visitors; some of them looked like they might be artists, and some looked like they were probably students. They were all of those things. If one looked closely, similar groups of between half a dozen and a dozen people were coalescing in all levels of the museum.
A few minutes after six-thirty, the photographer Nan Goldin appeared in the lobby. There was a flurry of hugs and hellos, and several people snapped photos. It could have been a celebrity sighting—Goldin, whose work is in the museum’s collection, is a Guggenheim type of celebrity. She stood in the middle of the lobby, visible from almost any point of the great round building. Then the noise level rose and did not subside.
Small flyers started falling, as though from the glass dome, swirling like snow as they descended the six stories. Within minutes the floor looked coated in white. The small sheets of paper were prescriptions, made out by a “Robert Sackler, MD,” to a Solomon R. Guggenheim, for eighty-milligram pills of OxyContin, to be taken twenty-four times a day. Each script contained a quotation: “If OxyContin is uncontrolled, it is highly likely that it will eventually be abused . . . How substantially would it improve our sales?”
The quotation came almost verbatim from a filing made last month in the Massachusetts Superior Court by that state’s attorney general. The complaint alleges that this was an exchange between the inventor of OxyContin, Robert Kaiko, who was concerned about promoting the opioid-based pain medication, and Richard Sackler, whose family owns the OxyContin manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, and who, at the time, was a senior vice president with the company. The Massachusetts lawsuit is only the latest against the company, which back in 2007 first pleaded guilty to misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about the addictive qualities of OxyContin. The protest was the latest in a series staged by Goldin and her group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which has staged actions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and Harvard University’s art museums, which, like the Guggenheim, accept donations from the Sackler family. The Guggenheim’s education center bears the Sackler name, as does the Metropolitan’s wing that houses the ancient Roman Temple of Dendur.
On the floor of the Guggenheim lobby appeared empty orange medicine bottles with authentic-looking labels: “Prescribed to you by the Sackler Family. OxyContin. Extremely addictive. WILL KILL. . . . Rx# 400,000 dead.” A yellow strip up the side of the label read, “Side effect: Death.” At the same time, red banners were draped over the side of the ramp on four different levels. They read, “400,000 DEAD,” “SHAME ON SACKLER,” “200 DEAD EACH DAY,” and “TAKE DOWN THEIR NAME.” On the lobby floor, about ten people lay down staging a die-in amid the flyers and pill bottles.
Hundreds of visitors filled the galleries, creating a theatre in the round. Security guards did not intervene. Goldin spoke in staccato sentences, and a small group of supporters standing near her repeated each one of them in unison, insuring that sound carried up.
“We want their money,” Goldin said.
“For safe-consumption sites.”
“For harm reduction.”
“It’s time, Guggenheim! Take down their names!”
The crowd, in which it was now impossible to distinguish protesters from people who came to the museum to see art on the walls, picked up the chant, and then another: “Oxy money is in the halls! Throw them out if you have the balls!”
Goldin’s personal history with OxyContin, which she has described in talks and an essay, appears typical: she was prescribed the drug for a surgery several years ago, and, she has said, “got addicted overnight.” She went from getting the drug legally to buying it on the black market to, finally, overdosing on Fentanyl, a super-strong synthetic opioid. Soon after, she finally got clean, she started PAIN, which is modelled in part on the AIDS activist group ACT UP.
“Meet us at the Met!” said Goldin, and her group of supporters shouted it to the galleries.
About a hundred people, led by protesters carrying the banners that had been draped from the galleries, marched six blocks down Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum. Seven police S.U.V.s followed them, and police tried to direct the marchers to move to the sidewalk, but the protesters stayed in the roadway, chanting, “Sacklers lie, people die!” and “Shame on the Sacklers!”
For ten years after the drug’s introduction, in 1996, Purdue Pharma aggressively promoted OxyContin, falsely claiming that it posed little or no risk of addiction and encouraging its prescription for chronic pain, after surgeries when opioid pain relief was not warranted and in quantities that far exceeded patients’ needs. The company provided financial incentives for doctors to encourage these practices. PAIN activists argue that the fines paid by the company, such as the six-hundred-million-dollar penalty in the 2007 New York case and several million donated to efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, are insignificant compared to the tens of billions of dollars that Purdue has made off OxyContin.
Protesters stood on the steps of the Met holding their banners, and Goldin spoke from the sidewalk, facing the stairs. “We have to bring down the Sackler family,” she said. “They should be in jail next to El Chapo!”
“In the ground next to Pablo Escobar!” another speaker, the harm-reduction activist Robert Suarez, proposed.
A third speaker, a woman named Alexis Pleus, who said that she came down to New York City from upstate with “a group of grieving families,” said, “I don’t care if they go to jail. I want their money. And Buprenorphine,” an opioid derivative that is considered far less addictive than OxyContin, which makes it the drug of choice for treating opioid addiction. Buprenorphine, however, is much more difficult to obtain than OxyContin, at least in part because Food and Drug Administration guidelines for prescribing it are much more stringent than for OxyContin.
Pleus told her own story. Her son Jeff was prescribed OxyContin following a knee surgery. He was a high-school wrestler, and his doctor told him to take the drug for pain management so that he could continue wrestling. “They caused me to become an accomplice in my son’s death,” said Pleus. “When he talked of his pain, I said, ‘Did you take your pills?’ ” Jeff became addicted and eventually died of an overdose. Now, Pleus said, she wants the Sacklers to fund overdose-reversal medication and training, harm-reduction programs, and addiction treatment.
“I don’t expect you to care about my son,” she said. “But I want you to care about the four hundred thousand people who have died!”
“I don’t expect you to care about Jeff,” she continued.
“We care!” the protesters on the steps responded, interrupting her.